When Edward Muybridge photographed the first motion picture, I’ll bet he never imagined his pioneering efforts would lead to a film that has a flying wolf attacking a military helicopter. But here we are. He’d at least go on record that a movie like that should be a colossal crowd-pleasing fun factory.
Though director Brad Peyton’s RAMPAGE shows the occasional blip of rollicking good camp and goofy charm, it primarily takes itself far too seriously for its own good. Given the content, this should be overflowing with Amblin-patented wonder and spectacle mixed with a FAST AND FURIOUS-style bombast – but it comes up disappointingly short. Surprisingly, what functions most successfully is the sweet, loving relationship between the main character and his gorilla bestie. It’s the driving force of the action and this film’s beating heart, tethering audiences to the picture painted.
Friendly albino gorilla George (Jason Liles, who gives an incredible mo-capped performance) is the last of his kind, living in an enclosure at the San Diego Zoo, monitored by Primatologist Davis Okoye (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). The pair have an unbreakable bond – one that’s about to be tested when a corporate experiment gone wrong crash lands in George’s habitat. Two other Macguffins land in other parts of the country, affecting a wolf and a crocodile. The debris sprays a pathogen that genetically mutates the test subject’s DNA, making them bigger, stronger, faster and unstoppable. This is all part of “Project Rampage,” a corporate scientific trial led by cold, evil Wyden Technologies president Claire Wyden (Malin Akerman) and her sniveling, orally-fixated brother Brett (Jake Lacey). As “The Wrecking Crew” leaves a path of destruction on their way to Chicago, it’s up to Davis and geneticist Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) to unleash the antidote before it’s too late.
RAMPAGE’s cinematic iteration doesn’t bear much resemblance to the video game beyond a handful of superficial nods. But even the few self-aware details fall flat. For example, there’s a Rampage arcade game in the villains’ office lair. They even call their scheme, “Project Rampage.” It only adds up to a rabbit hole of confusion for the audience. They botch their Easter Egg homage due to a wild miscalculation. Plus, the joke about the wolf’s name feels like an easy target.
The build to the thrill of the romp em’, stomp em’, smashing third act climax is a bore. Villains give meaningless, expository speeches which expose their end game as flimsy at best. Their measure of steely cool under pressure needs to be amped up for maximum effect in the conclusion. Kate’s redemptive quest is also exposition-heavy and convoluted. Government Agent Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) – who speaks with a heavy southern drawl and leads with his perpetually exposed pistol packed on his belt – exists solely so screenwriters Ryan Engle, Carlton Cuse, Ryan K. Condal and Adam Sztykiel can back themselves out of corners they’ve unwittingly painted themselves into. His moment of high-camp is when he delivers his introduction line, “When science shits the bed, I’m the one they call to change the sheets.” Connective tissue that leads characters from one point to the next is logistically weak.
I’ll give the filmmakers credit for wanting to give the narrative more gravitas than it probably needs, let alone deserves. They take time to show what good science can accomplish – and the dangers of weaponizing DNA. They work in a story thread about poachers and ecological conservation that’s admirable. They also the weigh moral and ethical decisions of genetic splicing and pharmacology.
The ensemble isn’t the least bit shabby either. There’s a modicum of fun seeing The Rock show a more sensitive side whilst lampooning his stereotypical “strong action hero” role. Morgan makes some very bold CHOICES for his role – as does Lacey, who is constantly shown eating something. However, somewhere around the halfway point, you’ll wish the material was on par with their adept skills at playing comedy and drama. At least they gift us with a few over-the-top, hammy reaction shots from Harris and Morgan.
RAMPAGE opens on April 13.